The Competing Definitions of Political Correctness

The debate about political correctness can be broken down along two axes: Free Speech and Respect.

Quadrant 1: Free Speech with Respect: Ideas expressed respectfully and fully, without compromising integrity and meaning.

Quadrant 2: Free Speech without Respect: Sometimes these are stirring, provocative ideas. Other times it’s intolerance or bigotry.

Quadrant 3: Respect without Free Speech: This usually involves efforts to restrict free speech and uncomfortable ideas in the name of protecting “acceptable” viewpoints.

Quadrant 4: Absence of Both: For purpose of discussion, we’ll disregard this quadrant.


So what is the definition of “politically correct”? Is it Quadrant 1 or Quadrant 3?

To explore, let’s look at Quadrant 2. The people exercising “free speech without respect” are usually the ones railing against political correctness. And when they rail, they don’t emphasize their right to be disrespectful. They emphasize their right to free speech; to not be silenced. They claim they are arguing against Quadrant 3; “Respect without Free Speech”.

Does this always hold water? Here’s a simple test: when examining the views expressed by a speaker from Quadrant 2, try to imagine — is it possible to rephrase the views respectfully?

If not, then the speaker is probably disrespectful for the sake of being disrespectful — perhaps intolerant, or bigoted. In these cases, the speaker is actually arguing against Quadrant 1; “Free Speech with Respect”. They aren’t arguing on behalf of free speech — they just want to be disrespectful.

If it is possible to rephrase the words respectfully, and they are still being opposed, then their opponents are probably trying to inhibit free speech. In these cases, the speaker is more likely defending free speech and opposing Quadrant 3.

The biggest argument against “political correctness” is that being PC supposedly robs words of meaning, and inhibits free speech by definition. But this argument does not apply to Quadrant 1, where it is possible to express oneself fully while being respectful at the same time.

There are, however, oppressive and authoritarian Quadrant 3 impulses that try to limit exposure to valuable free speech in the name of defending “acceptable” viewpoints. Examples include some types of boycotts, or seeking to prevent some visiting university lecturers from speaking, etc.

But in either case, it is not true that objecting to disrespectfulness is, by definition, oppressing free speech. It does not limit anyone’s rights of free expression to demand civility and respect at the same time. Ultimately it is the free exchange of ideas that underlies free speech. And this requires a certain amount of demonstrated respect for your opponent’s ideas, even if you disagree with them.

So what is the definition of political correctness? The answer is that it has become a meaningless question, because the usage of the term has been so abused. It’s possible to be opposed to Q3 on the grounds of free speech. It’s possible to be opposed to Q1 on the grounds of being intolerant. The challenge is in knowing how to tell the difference.